Photo Credit to Peter Diana of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
By: Stephen Brown III
Last, but certainly not least, we have the AFC North. The North was an absolute roller coaster last year. The Steelers went from the hottest to the coldest team in football, the Browns finally were good, the Ravens were as steady as ever and the Bengals had to balance the highs of finally have a franchise QB to the lows of losing him for the season. With so much drama last year, I’m sure this year will be equally as exciting.
Pittsburgh Steelers, 2020 Record: 12-4, Lost Wild Card Round to Browns
Well, this had to be a tough year for Steelers fans. After starting 11-0, this team had a disastrous run down the stretch, losing four of their last five. Then, come playoff time, they got absolutely molly whopped by the Browns. With another year of Big Ben at the helm and a star-studded defense mostly returning, the Steelers will look to repeat last year without the epic collapse.
On offense, it’s a lot of the same cast of characters for the Steelers. Chase Claypool, Juju Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, and Eric Ebron all return as the team’s top pass-catchers and will all once again have Big Ben throwing to them. The Steelers also used their first two picks this year to add to the skill players, drafting Alabama running back Najee Harris with their first pick and tight end Pat Freiermuth with their second. The big question mark this year will be their offensive line after losing both Alejandro Villanueva and Maurkice Pouncey. Considering Big Ben isn’t as mobile as he used to be, the line could be what makes or breaks them this year. Defensively, this team returns many of its biggest names. After concerns of a holdout, TJ Watt recently inked a new deal that keeps him with the Steelers for years to come. He’s joined by Minkah Fitzpatrick, Devin Bush, Cam Heyward, and Joe Haden. The biggest loss for the Steelers was linebacker Bud Dupree, but they were able to replace him by trading for Joe Schobert.
This team should be fine again this year; however, I don’t think they have enough to make too much noise. We saw Big Ben break down towards the end of the year last season and with this offensive line, we could see him breaking down much sooner. The receiving core, while filled with playmakers, still lacks a true number one. The defense should be the saving grace of this team, and if this team is going to make any sort of run, it starts with them.
Steelers 2021 Record Prediction: 9-8
Baltimore Ravens, 2020 Record: 11-5, Lost in Divisional Round to Bills
Lamar Jackson is now 3/3 for making playoffs as the starter but this year, he finally broke through and got his first playoff win, beating the Titans in the Wild Card round after losing to them last year. However, early injury concerns could make another run at the playoffs difficult.
It works out really nice that I’m writing about the AFC North last. Had I written about them first, I’d be talking about how deep this backfield is, with both JK Dobbins and Gus Edwards ready to get carries. Now, in the past few weeks, we’ve seen Dobbins, Edwards, and Justice Hill all suffer season-ending injuries this preseason. Now, the Ravens have rookie Ty’Son Williams along with newly signed veterans Leveon Bell, Latavius Murray, and Trenton Cannon. However, with Lamar Jackson being the face (and legs) of this run game, I have no doubt that this rush attack will be dominant once again. However, with so many new faces in the run game, the Ravens may look to lean on the passing attack. They added some help for Lamar this year, signing Sammy Watkins and using a first-round pick on receiver Rashod Bateman. Bateman will miss the first three weeks due to a groin surgery but he and Watkins paired with Hollywood Brown, Devin Duvernay, and Mark Andrews leaves for plenty of weapons for Lamar to throw to. On defense, the injury bug bit again, with the Ravens losing Marcus Peters, arguably their best player, to a torn ACL. Other than that, the Ravens return a lot of the same guys as last year, including Derek Wolfe, Calais Campbell, Marlon Humphrey, and perhaps most importantly, Patrick Queen.
Lamar Jackson is a former MVP and has proved he can be a successful dual-threat QB in the NFL. And despite the narrative, he is a DUAL threat, not a running back. While he may not light it up like Patrick Mahomes, Lamar has shown that he is a solid passer, even without great weapons at receiver. I fully expect this team to be as good as last year, winning double-digit games and vying for the divisional title behind one of the best players in football, Lamar Jackson.
Ravens 2021 Record Prediction: 13-4
Cleveland Browns, 2020 Record: 11-5, Lost in Divisional Round to Chiefs
Just to remind us of how wild 2020 was, while the Patriots missed the playoffs, the Browns made it! This team has had a good amount of talent for a few years and new HC Kevin Stefanski was finally able to put it all together, culminating in double-digit wins, a playoff appearance, and a playoff win over the division champion Steelers. Ironically, the consulting company that recommended the Browns hire Stefanski also recommended they hire him a few years ago. Imagine where they might be now if they had. But as they say, better late than never.
There’s really nothing to say about this offense. Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, Jarvis Landry, and Austin Hooper all return behind a very strong offensive line. Oh, and remember that former all-pro receiver they lost to injury last year? I think his name is Odell Beckham Jr? Yeah, they get him back too. This offense was excellent last year and there’s really no reason to think they won’t be again this year. The defense is where this team added people this offseason. They signed Jadaveon Clowney, Malik Jackson, Troy Hill, John Johnson III, and Takk McKinley, who join their established stars, Myles Garrett, Denzel Ward, and Greedy Williams. This team also used their first two picks on defense, grabbing CB Greg Newsome and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.
This team was very well-balanced last year, sporting a strong running attack, good QB play, and a stout defense. With all this buzz and hype in Cleveland, this team has a legitimate chance to be a dark horse contender for the Super Bowl. At the very least, Browns fans can be excited knowing that this team should be good for the foreseeable future.
Browns 2021 Record Prediction: 12-5
Cincinnati Bengals, 2020 Record: 4-11-1, 4th Place
Well, 2020 was a wild year for the Bengals. They finally got their QB of the future, who looked pretty good to start the year before tearing his ACL. Fortunately, he tore early enough in the year to allow him to be back for week 1 this year. While this team probably won’t be competing for the playoffs this year, they’ll at least look to build on last year and set up Joe Burrow for future success.
As previously mentioned, this team will focus on simply being better than last year. That means making sure Joe Burrow both stays healthy and improves. While many expected the Bengals to take Penei Sewell with their first pick to help keep Burrow upright, they instead went with his old LSU receiver, Jamarr Chase. After a rough preseason filled with drops, Chase will look to bounce back in the regular season, looking to be a weekly weapon opposite Tee Higgins. Despite not drafting Sewell, the Bengals did improve their line, signing Reily Reiff and drafting Jackson Carmack in the second round. Defensively, this team might be in trouble. While they do have a few good players like Jessie Bates III and Von Bell, they lack any real threats and have a team filled with mostly nobodies. Unfortunately, their third-round pick, Joseph Ossai, is likely out for the season, meaning there’s not much to look forward to with this defense.
The defense being bad might be a blessing in disguise. This team was never competing for a division crown or even a playoff spot, so bad defense just means more offense which means more development for Burrow, Chase, and Higgins. On offense, this team has the pieces to be good for years, but unfortunately for Bengals’ fans, it’s just not this year.
Bengals 2021 Record Prediction: 5-12
Final AFC North Standings
Baltimore Ravens 13-4
Cleveland Browns 12-5
Pittsburgh Steelers 9-8
Cincinnati Bengals 5-12